How diatom blooms are being formed: Identifying the genetic underpinnings of fast growth.

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Environmental Sciences


Diatoms are responsible for about 25% of global carbon fixation as a result of their successful opportunistic 'bloom and bust' life cycle, which means they quickly dominate phytoplankton communities when conditions become favourable. A rapidly-changing environment has been regarded as the most important driver for diatoms' lifestyle. Decades of research confirm the importance of light, temperature and nutrients for bloom formation in the ocean. Bloom formation is characteristic for many different microalgal species in the ocean. They are able to quickly build up high cell concentrations and therefore biomass if conditions become favourable, which particularly is known from toxic algal blooms close to the shore. These blooms are quite often caused by a combination of elevated temperatures and high concentrations of nutrients. However, the majority of algal blooms in the ocean are not caused by toxic species. Most oceanic microalgae form seasonal blooms in spring and autum, which fuel the entire marine food web. The significance of this seasonal process on a global scale even visible from space is the reason why many different groups from all over the world have worked for decades to better understand how these blooms are being formed. Much has been learned from these studies over the past decades but our group has for the first time provided evidence that a specific conserved key regulator protein and a wider network of many still unknown proteins need to be present in order to be able for diatoms to form blooms. Ramifications of this discovery are significant for our understanding of bloom formation in the ocean but also for biotechnological applications based on microalgae (e.g. biofuel). This fundamental and new knowledge can help us to optimize growth of algae by means of reverse genetics in order to produce any algal product more efficiently and therefore to a cheaper prize. This small grant application aims to obtain a new piece of knowledge to better understand how one single protein and its genetic network can translate favorable environmental conditions into fast growth. We want to investigate the mechanism of action of the gene product of our bloom inducer gene (BIG1). Preliminary evidence shows that the BIG1 protein binds to DNA but we don't know whether it directly binds or via an interacting protein. Another open question is where it binds on the DNA. This grant application will help us to answer how and where the gene product of BIG1 binds to DNA and therefore activates other genes involved in cell division and therefore fast growth. This knowledge is essential for a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of bloom formation in diatoms but also for biotechnological improvement of algal growth for any kind of product derived from marine microalgae.

Planned Impact

1) Types of beneficiaries
Significant beneficiaries of this research include academia and industry. The public sector will become interested when we have shown that our work has influence on the commercialization of algal products. Our study will provide fundamentally new data on growth regulation in marine diatoms, which is of international and interdisciplinary interest. The second most important beneficiary of this research is industry, especially in the area of renewable biofuel and high-value algal products.
2) How might they benefit from this research?
Academia: We will provide new insights into the evolutionary success of diatoms in the marine environment by putting the existing knowledge of environmental (external) regulation of growth in the context of cell-cycle regulation (internal), which has not been done yet. This will contribute to a new understanding of how these keystone organisms use cellular mechanisms to cope with environmental changes.
Industry: A key process for using any kind of algae for biofuel or the production of high-value end products (e.g. polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, ceramides) is efficient growth to be able to produce the desired substance for a competitive price and in sufficiently high quantities. Our work for the first time has identified a gene that enhances growth in many marine diatoms and also those used for algal biotechnology (e.g. Skeletonema costatum). The potential for industrial applications is huge because production of biomass would be faster without any change of growth conditions, enabling a more cost effective production of the desired product from microalgae. The significance of our discovery for algal industry was the reason we filed a patent in the US (US provisional patent no.: 61/441692). Our patent already has attracted interest from international industry (Synthetic Genomics). Synthetic Genomics and UEA are currently in licencing negotiations and in setting up collaboration with them (Dr. Imad Ajjawi, Renewable Fuels and Chemicals, see letter of support). This collaboration will explore the commercial value of our new cell line and the underlying genetic modification. Especially new data from this NERC application will significantly help to understand the mechanism of action of the BIG1 protein and therefore enable us to optimize growth even further.
Public sector: A successful outcome of this study will also interest the public sector (national and international) because it will contribute to making renewable biofuel and high-value products from algae more affordable by reducing production costs.
3) What will be done to ensure that potential beneficiaries have the opportunity to engage with this research?
Events: Dissemination of results to the academic community will be done by high impact publications (discovery of first gene that enhances growth in eukaryotic microalgae), talks on conferences, workshops. Dissemination to the public will be done by press releases and promotional flyers (see below). Furthermore, we are going to present non-sensitive data on open days (UEA).
Communication activity: The patent application for BIG1 was done in close collaboration with Dr. Georgina Pope (Commercialisation Manager) from Research and Enterprise Services at UEA. She designed a promotional flyer for BIG1 and the novel cell line. This flyer will go public on the UEA website within the next couple of weeks.
Collaboration: Currently beginning with Synthetic Genomics in the US to explore the biotechnological potential of BIG1 and the transgenic cell line in their production pipelines. We are currently also setting up collaboration with 'Supreme Biotechnologies' (Mr. Tony Dowd) from the UK. This company is interested to test this new strain in their production facilities in New Zealand. We will train employees from both companies to work with our strain and for optimizing growth conditions to obtain the highest growth rates possible.


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Description We were able to further characterize the function of a novel DNA-binding protein involved in cell division in diatoms.
Exploitation Route Collaboration with industry (Algal biotech).
Sectors Energy

Description We have filed a patent application (?PCT/GB2012/050305). Our manuscript is under revision for Nature Microbiology
Sector Energy
Impact Types Economic